I read today the essay by French Lieutenant-Colonel Fontaine, second in command of a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle unit. Here is a translation of his essay:
The original version of the essay (in French), can be found here.
This article is another contribution to the current controversy over UAVs, sparked by the increasing number of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen (the “Drone War”), which raised questions regarding international law and the efficiency of UAVs as counter-terrorism tools. Human rights organizations have declared some sort of “war on the Drone war”, sparking off sharp answers by the military or specialists reminding them what war is about. To some extent the debate could be summarized by ” damn hippies” vs “the awful Military-Industrialized complex“.
We should not be naive: UAVs are useful, but this essay is highly questionable, in my opinion.
By allowing States to deploy unmanned systems able to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes within a range of 500 to 1,000 nautical miles and with an autonomy going up to 40 hours, UAVs represent a very useful military capability. Such a technology is also quite interesting regarding civilian (or non-strictly military) applications as Daniel Fiott (who wrote a good article about the European Union and UAVs) explains:
One must not fall foul of thinking that UAVs simply have a military application, and there is great potential for the EU to use them for assistance during its civilian missions. Think of the role UAVs could play in conflict prevention in fragile areas across the globe, and also the tasks they could fulfil in detecting natural disasters, particularly in the Mediterranean, before they occur. Real-time footage of refugee movements in conflict zones would also be made easier through UAV usage. One can also think of the benefits that UAVs would bring to EU monitoring missions – one of the 2010 Headline Goals – such as that ongoing in Georgia.
Overlooking the technology put into the development of UAVs, and the beneficial knock-on effects it can have for industry in general, is also an error. One should not forget, for example, that the GPS systems located in millions of cars the world over started life in the military. Aerospace consultants in the US believe that worldwide UAV expenditure will top approximately EUR 42 billion in the next ten years, and the US is set to command a 77% share of all R&D in the sector over this period. With an eye on the future, therefore, the EU rightfully wants a stake in the gains to be had from the UAV sector.
Hence I do agree with Lieutenant-Colonel Fontaine’s move to justify the use of UAVs. However, there are some arguments he fails to address properly.
1/ The legal issue:
The author makes it clear that the use of UAVs complies with Humanitarian Law. Of course, everyone knows that war kills, sometimes civilians, even the humanitarian law acknowledges it. However, by writing that “behind these strange-looking flying objects there are always men. And they act in an accurate legal framework“, he may be wrong or at least inaccurate, especially regarding the use of force.
Indeed, UAVs allow an easier use of force. If a State wishes to process a target, the political authority just has to task a UAV and its crew to deal with it. There is no need for boots on the ground or a manned aircraft above the target, simply an airfield whose proximity with the target falls within the range of the UAV. Crossing a border is easier with a UAV in so far as there is no risks to have men killed by the enemy or made prisoners by the state whose sovereignty has been affected. Regarding this matter, one of the final scenes of Syriana is a must watch: the target (located in the Middle-East) is being engaged from the CIA headquarters in Langley.
Thus, because of UAVs, we might witness more frequent violations of airspace. Using the case of Pakistan (where the absence of official answers by Pakistani authorities to US solicitations to conduct UAV strikes are interpreted by the US administration as acquiescence), the Wall Street Journal reports that:
In an April speech, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the administration has concluded there is nothing in international law barring the U.S. from using lethal force against a threat to the U.S., despite the absence of a declared war, provided the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.
On the international stage, matters are less clear-cut. The unwilling-or-unable doctrine, which was first publicly stated by the George W. Bush administration and has been affirmed by the Obama administration, remains open to challenge abroad, legal experts say. Conducting drone strikes in a country against its will could be seen as an act of war.
With the risk of creating precedents that could be invoked by Russia or China, once these countries have similar capabilities to US unmanned systems…
It is simply being unaware to say that there are no humans behind these machines. Hence, Lieutenant-Colonel Fontaine’s example of a sniper is good (except that the sniper has got a joystick and his target, most of the time, the trigger of its AK-47… But this technological difference does not matter: gaining the advantage over the adversary by technological superiority has been a structural element of war for centuries).
To me the problem is not necessarily the distance between the adversaries. It is in the very use of robots (or at least, the excessive use of robots). Let us try to understand things from the enemy’s point of view. If he is not a *simple* kid that has been paid to shoot an RPG at a convoy in Afghanistan but a talib living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan who regularly crosses the border to shoot at ISAF troops or Afghan National Security Forces, chances are high he is already radical enough.
What will be his reaction on learning that he is being fired at by a robot? The fact that there is a human piloting the UAV is irrelevant to him: he will only understand that the missile was launched from a robot and may conclude that his enemy does not consider him important enough to send troops on the ground to confront him face-to-face, “à la régulière“. Hence, the excessive use of drone strikes (a plausible scenario given the apparent usefulness of UAVs) are likely to keep on fueling discontent and radicalism. The use of robots may allow tactical gains but will not necessarily help to defuse tensions.
3/ The need for cultural awareness
Former ISAF commander, Stanley McChrystal was quite clear about drones. Danger room reported parts of his speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer:
[McChrystal] acknowledged that “We can look at things and get an extraordinary ability to see things”, but said drones provide merely “one part of an understanding. We need to understand what drones are not.”
Drones are no substitute for information derived from human beings, the former commander emphasized, on the ground in dangerous, confusing places. McChrystal reminded an audience [...]“I hope we don’t use them to the exclusion of teaching people [foreign] languages, [and] sending people to live” in foreign countries.
“We made a huge mistake one night in Afghanistan, [...] We killed a civilian farmer in the middle of the night with an attack helicopter based upon [intelligence] we had from an aerial platform. The guy was digging by the side of the road.” Mistakenly believing that the farmer was planting a bomb, the U.S. military ordered a helicopter strike, only learning later that the farmer posed no threat.
McChrystal remembered apologizing to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who informed the then-commander about Afghan irrigation techniques which sometimes involve tending the soil at night. “That’s the point: you have to know those things,” McChrystal said, as drones do not remove the need to “get your feet in the mud and understand people.”
As defence budgets shrink, battlespace digitization and automation is a tantalizing option. Let us hope joint staff will not develop it at the expense of human intelligence and cultural awareness. A cheap and effective way to improve knowledge about areas of operations would be to keep on developing partnerships with universities that have pools of experts in History, Geography, Culture, Languages…
Hence, we have to be careful no to over-rely on drones. They surely are a useful tool, but we have to understand that their misuse can trigger more problems than they can (help to) solve and that their legal framework is dangerously unstable.